As British Airways flight BA2052 from Harare descended through grey skies and landed on the damp Tarmac at London's Gatwick airport last Sunday morning, an excited young tourism student was among the passengers straining excitedly for a first glimpse of Britain.
Dorothy Chitsaka, 20, was looking forward to a break after successfully completing her course at the School of Hospitality and Tourism in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.
Sitting beside was her cousin Sheila Gardener, 36, a British Zimbabwean resident who had bought the student's £690 return ticket and offered to put her up for four months at the Brighton home she shares with her English husband.
But by 8pm the same night, Ms Chitsaka – disbelieved and allegedly treated with contempt by British immigration officials – was on her way back to Africa.
A day earlier, Asian Zimbabwean Aarti Doolabh, a sales administrator, was similarly humiliated and sent home as she arrived for a two-month holiday with her boyfriend, who lives in London where he is seconded to a bank.
The young tourists, who claim they are victims of racial discrimination, are among growing numbers of black and Asian visitors from Zimbabwe and South Africa who are being turned away at airports in what is alleged to be a new hard-line approach by British immigration staff.
The allegations of racial discrimination against bona fide tourists and visitors who do not require visas call into question Britain's relationship with countries and citizens of the new Commonwealth, ahead of the Commonwealth heads' meeting in Queensland, Australia, this weekend.
It emerged last night that the Zimbabwean High Commission in London is so concerned by reports that Zimbabwean visitors, particularly those coming to study in Britain, are being turned back at airports that it has raised the matter with the British Government.
Ms Chisaka alleges that white passengers from Zimbabwe were treated wholly different from non-whites. She said: "There were just black people in the room, apart from one white lady. I was the first one in the room, she was about number 15, and she was seen to very quickly, while we all had to wait. We were given no food from 6.45am when we landed until 3pm, when they eventually gave us an out-of-date sandwich.
"The detention room was filthy with crisp packets all over the floor. A white female officer came in and said 'Were there animals in here or what?' and then she said 'Goodbye' as if to say 'Thank goodness you're going'."
Officials told Ms Chitsaka that her answers during 13 hours of waiting and grilling did not tally with those of her cousin. A stunned Mrs Gardener said: "Our mothers are sisters. How could they not have tallied? They were so rude. They didn't even ask me anything. All they would know from my forms is that I was a nurse and that I was on maternity leave and that I was going back to work at the beginning of March. She didn't ask me where I worked."
Ms Doolabh tells a similar tale. Arriving in Britain, she even had a letter from her employer saying she would be back at work in Harare on 18 April. But by 6pm last Sunday, she too was back in the air and heading for Zimbabwe.
Ms Doolabh alleges white passengers were "let through very nicely" by British immigration officials while blacks and Asians were herded to a room, questioned for hours and then deported.
She said: "[The immigration officer] asked me why I was on leave when my country was 'going down the drain'. I said my employer had granted me leave because he was happy with my performance."
Similar allegations of discriminatory treatment by British immigration staff have emerged from South African travellers.
Evert Munsamy, 21, from Durban, who landed at Heathrow on 10 February, said: "There were only black people locked up in the back room – a few Asian South Africans, a few Africans and a whole group of Asian people who spoke a foreign language. There was not a white among us. I've never been treated with such racism, not even in South Africa." It was her first trip abroad.
In the same room was Thuveshan Marimuthu, 21, a college student, also from Durban, who was turned away from a month-long holiday to visit his uncle, a doctor in Bournemouth. The air ticket was a 21st birthday present from his parents.
After arriving at Heathrow, he said he was questioned by officials for six hours and held for 14 hours without food or drink. "They were picking people of Indian and African origin. No white man was picked," he said. "I was asked all sorts of questions, including whether I was seeking employment in London. They made a mockery of some items I had taken with me for my aunt. I was treated like a third-world citizen with no respect for my human dignity."
Mr Marimuthu's passport was stamped – later overwritten with a cross – and he was allowed to spend the night with his uncle and aunt. They returned him to Heathrow the following day, as agreed, but he was still sent back.
Mr Marimuthu had no intention of staying in the UK. He is in the middle of studies at a Durban college, is serving an apprenticeship in one of his father's companies, and was booked to fly back in time for a major family celebration on 9 March. His father and uncle, who is a doctor at Royal Bournemouth Hospital, faxed Heathrow immigration to vouch for him.
His father said: "I spoke several times to immigration officials on Sunday. Some were friendly, but one told me that since I had raised my voice my son would definitely be denied entry, and another said, 'You people want to rule the world, but I tell you, you won't rule Britain'."
After details of the case emerged in Durban earlier this month, other South Africans came forward with similar stories of discriminatory treatment in Britain. Shameen Thakur-Rajbansi, a politician, was treated "very suspiciously" at Heathrow while en route to Cuba as part of a parliamentary delegation.
She was the only Asian member of the group, and the only person to be quizzed and searched. "I believe the only reason why I was not sent back was because I was in transit to Cuba. I was similarly questioned on my return via London. Our delegation agreed that it was my surname and being of Indian origin that was my problem," she said.
Her husband Amichand Rajbansi said: "We have asked the speaker of parliament to lodge an objection with the British Government. My wife and lots of other South Africans of Indian origin have been treated very badly at Heathrow."
Observers believe that the alleged treatment of foreign visitors is a result of the pressure on the British asylum-system. Some 160 people from Zimbabwe claimed asylum in Britain last month and Home Secretary David Blunkett was forced in January to guarantee that no Zimbabwean asylum- seekers would be sent home because of the deteriorating political climate there.
Alan Wilkinson, from the London-based Zimbabwe Association, complained that British immigration officials appeared to fear that asylum-seekers were attempting to slip into the country as tourists. "Zimbabwe is still part of the Commonwealth," he said. "The Commonwealth didn't suspend Zimbabwe, but its people – genuine tourists -- are being turned away at the borders. It's a terrible double standard."
Immigration officials are exempt from British race relations legislation but yesterday the Home Office denied any suggestion of discrimination in the service.
A spokeswoman said: "If the immigration officer is not satisfied that a visitor meets the criteria laid down in regulations then they will be sent back. If they have the right papers they should be allowed in."
Meanwhile, Dorothy Chitsaka said she was continuing with plans for a career in the Zimbabwean tourism industry. She said: "I tell you, [Nelson] Mandela is an incredibly strong man. He was locked up for 25 years. I was locked up for a day and I nearly died."Reuse content